HAYWARD, Wis. – It’s 19 degrees here, and there are three nuns in wind-whipped habits standing with three robed friars in a line in the middle of the town’s snowy Main Street. They strap their boots into one 25-foot-long pair of wooden cross-country skis, and with a few signs of the cross and a cheer, they’re off, chanting "Hail Mary, Hail, Mary" as they charge up the street in perfect, lockstep stride.
North Country religious hallucination? No, it’s the "Giant Ski" race, and just one part of the colorful, slightly crazy and fully American celebration of cross-country skiing that takes over this tiny town for one action-packed, cowbell-clanging winter weekend.
In short, it’s Birkie time.
For the uninitiated, Birkie is short for the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America, and one of the longest at 50 kilometers. Created in 1973 by entrepreneur Tony Wise to promote his Telemark ski area in nearby Cable, the race emulates the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet, itself a commemoration of a snowy rescue in 1201 of a Norwegian prince by skiing soldiers.
But for Hayward, the Birkie has grown into more than just a marathon. For one weekend in February, this old-fashioned American town of 3,000 fills to the brim with high-spirited crowds. More than 10,000 skiers and 20,000 fans pour in to race or watch the races, cheer on friends and family, and fill the air with the rustic clamor of cowbells made internationally famous at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. It’s the closest thing to Mardi Gras you can get, below freezing.
And the Birkie does combine the sublimely fun with the very serious. While elite racers make their way to Hayward and prepare for the centerpiece skate and traditional races on Saturday, Friday brings the party with a series of fun and family-oriented events.
In addition to the "Giant Ski" race, Friday’s Barkie Berkie combines canine with cross-country in homage to skijoring, a Norwegian sport that began with reindeer pulling skiers that evolved to horses and now dogs. Here, skiers and dogs are tethered together for a 3-kilometer or 5-kilometer loop that’s more colorful than competitive. Also on the family-friendly side, there is a 5K/10K Family Fun Ski that brings generations out for a lap in the snow together (plus medals and cookies at the finish). You’ll see moms pulling babies in sleds, teams of brightly colored siblings racing each other for bragging rights, and spouses of hardcore racers enjoying their own Birkie at a manageable length.
And everywhere you’ll see a veritable nation of cross-country skiers strolling about, proudly wearing their race bibs or collection of annual pins, and exhibiting obvious delight in being among their people, sharing a passion for the outdoors and for a swift and snowy trail.
With those skiers, of course, comes a blizzard of dollars – an estimated $8 million-$12 million pours into the area annually with the race. But the Birkie is more than just a polar vortex of economic impact. Just ask Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Wis., who has skied the Birkie more than a half-dozen times and is posing this year as one of those historic, 13th-century Norwegians. With swatches of birch lashed to his boots and a handmade battle-axe and shield, not to mention a hammered helmet and seasonal beard, he’s a walking advertisement for both the historic legacy and contemporary pageantry that infuses this event.
“It’s a major tourism draw,” Hulsey said. “It brings people in from all over the world.”
Hulsey will spend Saturday at the finish line of the big Birkie, congratulating finishers and sharing the love but not losing his Hayward-esque sense of humor.
“We’re the real Game of Thrones,” he said, adjusting his tartan toga.
“You have to love that.”
Yahoo Sports continues its coverage of the American Birkebeiner on Saturday with race-related stories and results.